It’s impossible not to have an opinion about foodbanks. Whether informed by the media or having visited one yourself, with so much coverage of the cost of living crisis, it’s unlikely you don’t have a view on their place in our world.
As I write this, we’re no longer where I thought we were. Our new Prime Minister has announced a massive package of borrowing, borrowing that we will all pay back over decades, in order to freeze utility bills at their pre-October rate. What we don’t fully know is what impact this will have on the 2.2 million people that used a foodbank last year and most of us that are still paying twice as much on their utilities as last winter. The energy price freeze means the average bill is around £2500 a year, rather than the anticipated rise to over £3500 in October and £5400 in January. This feels not dissimilar to when the train guard announces that the train is going to be half an hour late and you end up feeling grateful when it’s only 15 minutes late. It’s not a great outcome for the many people who still miss their connection.
Whether this price freeze takes the heat out of the current situation and the subsequent media focus remains to be seen. That around a third of children remain in poverty, in part because the situations for many were desperate before the pandemic, is appalling. This is a situation that has been further exacerbated by the current crisis. Citizens Advice with their superb quarterly dashboard, have already seen more people this year than 2019, 2020 and 2021 combined, who can’t top up their prepayment meter. This is the situation for many based on the current rate that we’re now to be grateful that will be frozen.
As someone who runs a social enterprise that specialises in financial inclusion and inclusive values, it’s hard not to feel that we have to do more and reach more people.
Part way through the late spring, I felt compelled to utilise our not inconsiderable skill and track record in the field of impactful financial inclusion interventions with the values that actually make them work. At Your Own Place we support people with our proven values-led approach to develop the money skills, confidence, knowledge, networks and resilience in the most difficult situations. What does that mean? It means deploying our unique money skills workshops so that people have a space where they feel less isolated, gain new skills and feel better about the situation they are in. People deserve to have some control and we can help with that by utilising and magnifying the community’s assets. Those assets are the people themselves, often called ‘experts’, in the community with the hard-won skills, knowledge and resilience they have developed, no thanks to most of us. It’s remiss not to leverage it, for the benefit of themselves as well as all of us. This is what an asset-based approach looks like in practice.
Providing an intervention via a foodbank fits our ‘targeted’ model of prevention because people visiting a foodbank have sadly already self-selected as ‘in need’. Whether it’s prevention, however, is another matter. True prevention means they wouldn’t need to go to a foodbank in the first place. At a time like this, prevention versus crisis must form part of the dialogue of solutions. I’ll leave that to policy makers. We concluded, as many that volunteer at foodbanks did years ago, that amongst so much suffering, we just have to do something.
With a decision made, over the spring and early summer, I spent a good deal of my time on my bicycle around Norwich, visiting foodbanks seeing how they work, how people interact with them and putting together both the business case for support and building relationships. Each foodbank is so different – from the cafe (and some pretty epic cheese straws) at New Hope, Lakenham, a full-English at Alive, Nelson Street to a quick and kind cuppa at the NCBC Baptist Church and St Elizabeth’s in Bowthorpe. The Feed, as a social supermarket, is another model entirely.
Some have partnerships to offer additional support from a worker from Shelter, for example, and more partnerships planned with Citizens Advice and local authorities. They use their networks and imagination to get the food, get more food, get fresh food and cater to people’s needs as best they can. Overseen by the Trussell Trust who manage the central distribution centre, The Trussell Trust also brings huge value in coordinating referrals, capturing data and capacity building.
Even more extraordinary is that they are largely run by (often church) volunteers. This can have its drawbacks of course for those of different faiths or with reticence about engaging with the church, but as someone who has worked in this sector for long enough, we can neither let the perfect be the enemy of the ‘it just needs doing’, nor fail to make it as welcoming and accessible as possible.
It was at Alive that I was most moved. Alongside a pretty amazing cooked breakfast, I learnt that it had been a foodbank for over a decade. Foodbanks are sadly nothing new and into the winter we speculate that people will go there for warmth as well as food. Beyond physical warmth, what moved me was the human warmth. Many there to pick up food knew each other. It had more the feel of a community centre than a foodbank, whilst it was quite clear that people were in varying degrees of need and distress.
That people have to rely on places such as this for all kinds of warmth is a sad indictment of our society. However, is that bit of Norwich better for having Alive there? Yes. If we don’t want people going hungry then we must provide food and we can do so not only with dignity and kindness, but provide more support alongside for many of the underlying challenges people face.
I’m thrilled then, despite these mixed emotions, to be working alongside four foodbanks and one social supermarket over the next year. That Your Own Place can now play its small role in reaching people to build on the inherent value and skills they already have, share this with others, build an evidence base and be a part of breaking a cycle and easing lives is a privilege. People deserve better and are worth more than the situation they are momentarily in through no fault of their own.
We are hugely grateful to Norwich Consolidated Charities for funding this work.